By Eric Plaag
Before I say a single word about the latest and last installment of the Harry Potter franchise—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part II—let me make it abundantly clear that I harbor a very strong bias in favor of hero stories that actually understand how to get the monomyth right. They are, after all, exceedingly and increasingly rare. For the uninitiated, the monomyth is Joseph Campbell’s complex and too infrequently read model for how ALL good and proper hero stories across a wide array of disparate cultures actually function. Cyclical in nature, the hero’s journey requires the hero to pass through a set of thresholds and challenges on his way to a final battle with the often evil guardian who possesses the elixir or boon that will restore order to the human world.
Most modern stories forget, though, that the really, really scary part for the hero isn’t supposed to be the ugly guardian beast but rather the demons that lurk within. At the zenith of the monomyth cycle, then, is the hero’s confrontation with a father figure, a point at which full understanding finally comes to the hero. “The problem of the hero going to meet the father,” Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being.” This is a pivotal, indeed crucial moment in Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey, a point when the hero’s entire enterprise hangs in the balance of this confrontation with the contradictions of existence. It is a time in which atonement with the “father” is essential, a resolution that must be achieved before the hero can defeat the guardian and obtain the boon.
Too often, though, in films and novels that are generated by a Hollywood industry whose purveyors have apparently forgotten how to read, we get stories that do not understand what that atonement requires of the hero. Instead, we get vague realizations of the hero or heroine “finding” him/herself, or long sequences of ever-increasing accomplishments that ultimately lead to our protagonist being “brave” enough to face an external monster. It’s not the external monster that matters, though, not by a long shot. “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster,” Campbell explains further, “the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult.” In short, to complete the final battle of his quest, the hero must often dig within himself to destroy all that he believes to be himself.
Now that I’ve laid all of that out there for you, let me also make it abundantly clear that J. K. Rowling (author of the Potter novels), Steve Kloves (screenplay), and director David Yates must have brushed up on their Campbell recently, because they sure do get this one right. I certainly didn’t anticipate it going in, but Deathly Hallows, Part II (and the whole Potter franchise) should now officially be required viewing for anyone who wants to learn how to do the hero cycle correctly.
It almost seems unfair to say too much about how the film’s plot contributes to these accomplishments, so I shall keep my summary brief indeed and intentionally vague. Deathly Hallows, Part II picks up exactly where Part I left us, almost jarringly so. After a brief reminder that Voldemort has secured the Elder Wand (a scene that is actually built into the studio credits), we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) bury his friend Dobby. After some interrogating and planning, the search for Horcruxes resumes at the usual dizzying pace. In the first of these adventures, viewers are treated to Hermione (Emma Watson) doing a stunning impersonation of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), replete with a mimicking of her customary bulging eyes and arrogant sass, thereby cleverly amplifying the question of whether Hermione and Bellatrix are and always have been doppelgangers to one another. Discoveries in the vaults at Gringotts ultimately lead the trio back to Hogwarts, though, setting up not only a remarkably creative and impressive battle for control of Hogwarts but also presaging the internal and often introspective search that must ultimately be at the core of Harry’s final test.
As one would expect of a finale, Deathly Hallows, Part II answers a host of unanswered questions about the real loyalties of many of its secondary players, including Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Snape’s backstory, in fact, may be the most compelling of the subplots in Deathly Hallows, Part II, if only because it points to Rowling’s ridiculously disciplined restraint in the franchise’s early chapters. Rather than reading as a slapdash rationalization of a character’s earlier inexplicable behavior, Snape’s story spins out into a tale of crushing heartbreak, unwavering loyalty, and deepest, most abiding love. While I have always been fond of Rickman’s portrayal of Snape, his performance here made him seem at times a more sympathetic character than perhaps Harry himself. His revelations to Harry, delivered (literally) through his dying tears, are what ultimately force Harry into that essential confrontation and atonement with the contradictory figure he has always regarded as his father.
The fact that Yates has directed the last four Harry Potter films no doubt provides the necessary continuity in style and vision for these progressively darker films. While none of them is necessarily my favorite (Prisoner of Azkaban may still hold that honor, though I have not seen it recently), Yates has aptly captured the seriousness and urgency of Harry’s steadily darker path, thereby creating a tone that has almost entirely left behind the playfulness of Harry’s earlier days at Hogwarts and culminates in this final entry, which brings full circle the necessity of Harry’s desperate and at times hopeless journey to confront the ultimate evil. Some audiences have bristled at following this path of descent—Half-Blood Prince was widely disregarded by many as too brooding and/or boring to match the excitement of, say, Goblet of Fire, which was almost entirely about the small but exciting trials that mark the earlier portion of Campbell’s monomyth model. But having this perspective betrays one’s unfamiliarity with the fact that the final portions of the hero’s descent are supposed to have little to do with swashbuckling and almost everything to do with deep-seated, psychological pain and despair. In this regard, Deathly Hallows, Part II stands exactly where it should in the cycle, forcing us to see that pain and despair in Harry and the other characters with a clarity that makes the franchise more than just a series of exciting romps in the mind candy jar.
Where Deathly Hallows, Part II, stumbles, though, is in its insistence on taking inventory of its secondary characters while the final battle with He That Shall Not Be Named rages first outside and then inside the walls of Hogwarts. I have not read Rowling’s books upon which the films are based, but my son (who professes to have read each of them eight times) insists that this is a problem of cinematic story compression. In the novels, he assures me, the deaths of certain seemingly minor characters (Tonks and Lupin, for example) are handled with much more compassion and attention that makes these secondary aspects of the story more fulfilling. This may indeed be, but in the films, this pandering to the checklist of Everything That Happened in the Novels means that the uninitiated may (at best) be lost about who certain folks are and why they appear on screen for less than 30 seconds of this film, or (at worst) conclude that Rowling’s otherwise rich characters are mere scenery to be chewed upon in this finale.
Likewise, under Yates’s direction, there are moments when cinematic conventions actually intrude upon the pacing of the film, thereby flattening what are otherwise very tense and compelling action sequences. It seemed strange to me, for example, that we should see Hermione and Ron (Rupert Grint) stop to kiss one another when so much hangs in the balance at exactly that moment. I don’t know if Yates was attempting to make fun of this cliché of cinematic clichés, but I would have much preferred it if he had allowed the film’s intriguing and (in some circles) controversial coda to answer any questions we might have had about how their budding romance turned out. These are rookie mistakes, and in a film that otherwise manages to ring so true, they were more startling than they might have been coming from a less capable director.
I can forgive these trespasses, though, for what is otherwise a brilliant, moving, and thought-provoking final chapter to a series that I once believed was just hero tales for the kiddies. Just as Rowling insists she intended all along, the story has grown up, along with its protagonists and its readers. “You wonderful boy,” Harry’s father figure says to him in a place that can only be described as Limbo, even though it looks a bit like a foggy, whitewashed King’s Cross Station, “You brave, brave man.” Here lies the turn in the story, the recognition that in making an unthinkable sacrifice that required action without the help of his friends, Harry has made the hero transition his fate has always directed him to. I never believed I would think of a Harry Potter film as one of my revered ribstickers, but for the Snape sequences and Harry’s ultimate confrontation alone, it easily makes that list.
Theaters, 4 out of 5 stars